In a year that has already brought the deaths of immortal talents like George Jones, Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and Jack Greene, not to mention the untimely loss of Mindy McCready, it is understandable that the recent news regarding Randy Travis is having the country music fans collectively holding their breath with nervousness and dread.
There is something distinctly different about how I am processing the news about Randy Travis. The thought of losing him is inextricably linked with a feeling that we’d be losing an essential core of the country music that I fell in love with more than two decades ago. Now, I remember Randy Travis from when I was a child. What little kid wouldn’t be in love with a catchy song like “Forever and Ever, Amen”?
By the time I was old enough to discover country music on my own, he was already something of an elder statesman, despite his young age. As I delved into the history of the genre I was falling in love with, widely accepted concepts like Travis starting the new traditionalist movement and Storms of Life being one of greatest albums of all time had taken root. The truth is, traditionalism never really went away, and even during the Urban Cowboy years, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris were having commercial success with roots-based music.
But Randy Travis didn’t just have a bit of success. He sold millions of records in a time where almost no country acts were doing so, and certainly none who didn’t incorporate pop or rock sounds into their work. His massive success was the tipping point that made the nineties boom inevitable, as labels saw new acts like Clint Black and Alan Jackson as being capable of superstar status, instead of just being genre favorites that sold moderately well.
He never really got the credit he deserved for this, with the industry treating him like old news despite him continuing to score hits and sell platinum throughout the nineties and early 2000′s. There are so many great singles that I was around for when they first came out. “Before You Kill Us All.” “Look Heart, No Hands.” “Out of My Bones.” “Whisper My Name.” “If I Didn’t Have You.” “Better Class of Losers.” “The Hole.” “Three Wooden Crosses.” “Dig Two Graves.” The list goes on and on.
He’s also responsible, through no fault of his own, for what I call country music’s Messiah Complex. After he revolutionized the widespread appeal for traditionalism, which led to a solid decade of traditional country artists being signed and succeeding wildly, the sounds began to drift back to pop and rock flavorings. Since this shift, every slightly twangy newbie has been anointed as the savior of country music. Lee Ann Womack, Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks, Joe Nichols, Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, and Gretchen Wilson have all been shouldered with the burden of being the next Randy Travis.
This has led to deep disappointment when their second or third album struggled, or even worse, to feelings of betrayal when these selected stewards veered away from traditional country music. All that pressure, and not a one of them even started off with an album in the same league as Storms of Life, though Johnson and the Chicks came remarkably close.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the thought that his contemporary titan might not be with us anymore. I can’t stomach the coverage that focuses more on his personal troubles than his incredible body of work and peerless impact on country music as a whole.
Please use the comments to share your own thoughts and feelings about Randy Travis. Also, I recommend reading the Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists piece that Leeann Ward wrote a few years ago. It’s an excellent place to start for those who are looking to discover the his rich and diverse catalog.
her taste in material and I thought the production of her records was impeccable.
But on those early hits like “The Fool” and “A Little Past Little Rock”, I always had the nagging feeling that the songs would’ve been better if they’d been recorded by Pam Tillis, who has a similar vocal style but more power and range.
Over time, Womack perfected her vocal technique and created her own distinctive style, one that is best showcased by simple arrangements and tasteful restraint. The power of later hits like “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Last Call” comes from her ability to accentuate an understated vocal will little punches of twang and power that create a dramatic effect.
So now, fifteen years after Womack first surfaced, I find myself listening to the new single by Joanna Smith and wishing it was being sung by Lee Ann Womack. Smith’s got a great song, and she sings it well, following Patty Loveless’ golden rule: “Don’t get in the way of the song.”
But she stays out of the way of the song just a little too much, and there aren’t enough moments of twang or power to make the record interesting. I still hope it gets a shot at radio, as it would be the best breakthrough single for a new female artist in a good long while. I want to hear more from Smith, so I can hear more of Smith as she hones her style over time.
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Shelley Skidmore
Since bringing back Recommend a Track proved so popular, I’m resurrecting another CU oldie but goodie: the iPod check.
I’ve only recently discovered the Most Played feature on iTunes, since it never had any relevance until iPods were large enough in memory to sync all of my music. So going back to early 2011, I have a lengthy list of the songs I’ve played the most.
So today’s iP0d check: List your most-played song from twenty different country artists.
You can access this info by going to your own Most Played list and adjusting the number of songs on it – I use 500 for mine – or you can just go to Music and sort by number of plays. Or you can just pick twenty artists at random and list your most played song for each. We’re easy here. (This would also work in Spotify, from what I hear.)
Alan Jackson – So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore (40)
Crystal Gayle – Why Have Your Left the One You Left Me For (39)
George Strait – Meanwhile (39)
Lee Ann Womack – I May Hate Myself in the Morning (39)
Aaron Tippin – Whole Lotta Love on the Line (38)
I’m surprised that some of my most played artists overall, like Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, and Tim McGraw, don’t have that one big song that I play excessively. Also, at least half of the songs above aren’t what I would call my favorite song by the given artist. How about you?
Various Artists KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell
A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.
The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace cialis no prescription needed quick delivery production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.
In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together. It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life. Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together. However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.
Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook. While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator. Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.
The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar. Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement. A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.” In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity. Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog. Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years. Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.
Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife. It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals. “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr. “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”
Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found. The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music. One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.
First as a songwriter, then as a new country superstar, and currently as an alternative country icon, Rodney Crowell has made an indelible mark on country music for nearly four decades.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, he was already a bandleader in high school, heading up a teenage outfit called the Arbitrators. He was only 22 when he moved to Nashville, and by 1975, he’d been discovered by Jerry Reed, who heard him doing an acoustic set. Reed not only recorded one of his songs, but also signed him to his publishing company.
Crowell was soon a member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, and she was the first to record some of his compositions that went on to be big hits for other artists, including: “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings; “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle; “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys; and “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack.
His remarkable songwriting talent led to a record deal with Warner Bros. While a trio of albums for the label were critically acclaimed, they failed to earn him success on the radio or at retail. But as would be the case for his entire career, other artists mined those records for hits. Most notably, “Shame on the Moon” became a #2 pop hit for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.
Crowell took a break from his solo career to focus on his songwriting and production responsibilities for then-wife Rosanne Cash. This would be yet another successful avenue for Crowell, as his work with Cash produced several #1 singles and three gold albums. The relationship also helped set his solo career on fire. After signing with Cash’s label Columbia, his second set for the project was previewed with a duet with Cash, “It’s Such a Small World.”
It became the first of five consecutive #1 singles from Diamonds & Dirt, a gold-selling disc that briefly made Crowell an A-list country star, as five additional Cash singles that he had produced also hit #1 over the same time period. He received a Grammy award for Best Country Song for “After All This Time.” Two foll0w-up albums for Columbia also produced a handful of hits, with his final mainstream success being the pop crossover hit, “What Kind of Love.”
In the nineties, Crowell recorded two albums for MCA which were well-reviewed, but most notable for the second set including “Please Remember Me.” It stalled as a single when Crowell released it, but later that decade, Tim McGraw’s cover topped the charts for five weeks and earned Crowell a slew of award nominations.
The new century brought a reinvention on Crowell’s part, as he repositioned himself as an Americana artist with remarkable success. A trio of albums earned rave reviews, as did his collaboration with old friends like Vince Gill on The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which earned a handful of Grammy nominations and included Crowell’s “Making Memories of Us.” Once again, a current artist discovered it, and Keith Urban took it to #1 for several weeks.
Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, Crowell continues to build on his legacy as a singer, songwriter, and producer. Most recently, Crowell produced Chely Wright’s confessional Lifted off the Ground and co-wrote an album with friend Mary Karr which features their songs recorded by several artists, including Crowell himself.
I Ain’t Living Long Like This (Waylon Jennings), 1980
‘Til I Gain Control Again (Crystal Gayle), 1982
Shame on the Moon (Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band), 1982
The terrorist attacks on American soil ten years ago changed the course of our nation’s history in far more significant ways than just its impact on country music.
But the fact is that country music was changed as well. Here are the four biggest ways that it did, for better and for worse.
1. Alan Jackson Becomes a Legend
He was still getting solid radio airplay and record sales in 2001, but it seemed like his glory days were behind him. Then, he stepped on to the CMA Awards stage and debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to a stunned industry crowd on national television.
It was the perfect song by the perfect artist at the perfect time, and it launched an amazing return to the head of the pack. The commercial success was great, but it’s worth noting that “Where Were You” served notice that he was undergoing an artistic renaissance as well. The big hits that followed – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” and “Remember When” – were the best of his career. Heck, of anybody’s career.
2. Toby Keith Becomes a Superstar
On the same night that Jackson performed his instant classic, Toby Keith just sang his latest hit, the novelty number “I Wanna Talk About Me.” But the following spring, he came out with the next quintessential post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”
While it didn’t lead to nearly the same level of artistic growth that Jackson experienced, it did launch Keith into the rarefied air of country superstardom. For most of the next decade, he’d be an instant add at radio. And if some of those hits made us wince, it was still great to see the finest male vocalist of his generation get his due. For those of us who thought that he was robbed at radio and industry award shows in the nineties, it was rewarding to see him have his day.
3. The Politicization of Country Music
National unity began to fade in the run up to our invasion of Iraq, and country radio picked a side, much to the detriment of the format. The shamelessly jingoistic “Have You Forgotten?” became a seven week #1 for Darryl Worley, while a criticism of President Bush wiped the Dixie Chicks off of the radio dial.
The upshot? Country radio sent the message that if you weren’t on board with the Bush Administration, you better keep your mouth shut. Then again, with Worley’s career fading soon after “Have You Forgotten?”, opening it was no guarantee for long-term success, either.
4. Female Domination of the Genre Evaporates
This was the worst of it. Country record sales exploded in 2002, and the industry credited it to traditionalists Jackson and Keith. Radio drew the conclusion that listeners didn’t want any more pop-flavored country, despite the fact that two of the biggest selling albums of the year were by Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
Both ladies struggled at radio with their top-selling projects, and the careers of Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy nearly ended. Even ten years later, with the top-selling artists being Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, most female artists are still struggling to get radio play.
Ecclesiastes and Pete Seeger wrote this classic in a Music Row living room after eating some barbecue and swapping stories about their weekends. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” gets that life paints in shades of gray – things that seem undesirable to us may yet be necessary, and different courses of action may be morally sound or not depending on circumstance. But the song also doesn’t shy away from advocating for peace at the end, as if to say, “maybe we’ve already served enough ‘time for war,’ you know?”
I know it seems like a simplistic pick, but lately its message has really resonated with me. It’s incredible –mind-blowing, really– how much beauty and humanity you can see in the world every day if you choose to see it. And life is significantly more rewarding when you do.
But this gospel number brings out the very worst in Lee Ann Womack as a singer. She simply sounds terrible when she tries to get too soulful. She tries to do the Reba McEntire curlicues at some points, the Dolly Parton vibrato at others. She can’t pull either one of them off.
It’s not a good thing when the Blind Boys are singing to Womack to “forgive yourself”, and all I’m thinking is that if she was really sorry, she’d stop stretching two-syllable words out over fifteen seconds.
I am not one who typically embraces extremes, but I must make an exception for Johnny Cash’s recording of “Ring of Fire.” It’s the definitive version; it’s an untouchable. Sure, some people have made valiant attempts, even changing things up so as not to try to mimic Cash, but make it their own, and I even like some of these other versions. None of these other efforts, however, has surpassed or even come close to touching Cash.
So, I implore, why even try when any other version will only be runners up at best, especially when recording it for a tribute album isn’t the excuse? Although only in my head, I’ve asked this question of excellent artists such as Pam Tillis, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Charles, along with odder choices like Social Distortion and Blondie. Alas, now, I must ask the same of Alan Jackson and his somewhat superfluous (meaning she doesn’t add to or detract from the recording) accomplice, Lee Ann Womack.
While Alan Jackson’s version is technically easy on the ears, therein lies the major problem with the recording. It’s too mellow, devoid of passion. Instead of the imperative fiery recording that Cash seamlessly gave us, his is frustratingly lackadaisical, even amidst a bouncy, though uninspired, production. Ultimately, he seems to miss the point of the song altogether, which is a shame because it’s the only previously unreleased song on his 34 Number Ones Hits package that is supposed to hold us over until his next studio album.